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Black mountain magic: Big Ride Montenegro

In-depth
12 Jun 2018
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Words Joshua Cunningham Photography George Marshall

'Bicycle? No! You cannot! You will not!’ says the hotel receptionist. I’ve just told her of our plan for the day, to do a ride around the Durmitor National Park in northern Montenegro, and she considers it to be such an extreme undertaking that she’s worried for our welfare.

Far from being put off, I take her response as a good sign. It suggests that not only is the Durmitor region likely to provide a dramatic and scenic escape, but also that cyclists are virtually unheard of in the area.

It’s a little after dawn on a warm June morning, and as we roll out of the hotel forecourt through the small town of Žabljak, the first walls of the Durmitor massif appear forebodingly up beyond the steeply pitched roofs of the town.

The receptionist’s disbelieving words have set the scene for what I’m sure is going to be a memorable day on the bike, and accompanied by my riding partner Rob I pedal out of the town with two points to prove: that the Durmitor is one of the best undiscovered regions in the whole of Europe, and that, of course, the best way to explore it is by bike.

Geography matters

In its native tongue, Montenegro – Crna Gora – translates as ‘Black Mountain’, a name evocative of the swathes of mountain ranges and dense coniferous forests that cover much of the country.

By some definitions it is the most mountainous country in the whole of Europe, thanks to boasting more peaks above 2,000m than any other on the continent.

In the Durmitor massif alone there are no fewer than 48 mountains that fit that description, the highest of which, Bobotov Kuk, reaches 2,522m.

As we head north out of town, Bobotov dominates the western horizon, its upper reaches flirting with the last of the morning cloud cover, keeping its secrets wrapped up – for now.

The climb up to the col beneath it is on our itinerary, but it isn’t due to make an appearance for another 120km or so.

It doesn’t take long for the road to wither into a track so narrow and seemingly forgotten that we have to check the GPS to make sure we haven’t taken a wrong turn.

The smallholdings that are dotted along the roadside come and go without a murmur from within. The sleepy yards, long-retired machinery and rustic wooden structures echo the same pace of life as their tranquil surrounds.

Gradually the rural pastures are engulfed in thick forest. A tight alleyway has been hacked away between the tree trunks, just wide enough for the road to snake between the shadows, and we duly follow it, gaining altitude with every pedal-stroke.

When we left Žabljak we were already at a lofty 1,456m above sea level, and as we continue to gain altitude it doesn’t take long for the number of trees to start diminishing.

Soon we’re above the treeline, on a road that feels as if it overlooks the entire Balkan peninsula. Spreading out towards the eastern horizon is a part-barren, part-forested, part-mountainous landscape that encapsulates the geography of the Balkan region.

While its peaks may not be as high as those in the Alps or Pyrenees, its forests not as dense as those of Scandinavia and its moors less desolate than those of the Scottish Highlands, it’s the combination of these natural extremes in a single region that gives the Balkans their wild feel.

This diverse landscape is an apt reflection of the human geography too. For long periods of history, the region now known as Montenegro was controlled by warrior clans called pleme.

These clans mostly quarrelled between themselves, but united to ensure that this remained one of the few Balkan regions to repel the Ottoman invasion during the second millennium.

The road we find ourselves on follows in essence the border of the ethnically Muslim Sandžak region, which historically represented the line of Ottoman control, but which – after having first been split between Serbia and Montenegro – was later consumed by Yugoslavia, along with the rest of our surrounds.

The fact that we’re also in the region of Old Herzegovina indicates how close we are to the Bosnian border, beyond which lies yet more war-torn ethnic divisions.

Riding through the heart of such a socially complex region, it’s difficult not to see parallels between the turbulent, seemingly untameable nature of the region’s past and the wholly disorganised nature of the landscape stretching out before us.

As is so often the case, we’re finding that it is when travelling by bicycle that you get to know a place the best.

Into the deep

Eventually we turn a corner and set eyes upon the Tara Canyon, an 86km-long channel that reaches depths of 1,300m, making it the deepest gorge in Europe.

What had first appeared as an ominous void in the landscape to the east now presents itself as an impressive series of kilometre-high interlocking spurs, shrouded in a slight haze and swathed in dense vegetation.

Far below, hidden from our vantage point, is the Tara River itself. Unsurprisingly, given the dramatic nature of our surroundings, the Tara is something of a magnet for rafters and kayakers.

More surprising however is that rather than flowing into the Adriatic Sea, whose shores lap against the Dalmatian coast no more than 150km away, the waters cascading beneath us have a cross-continental journey ahead of them.

After tracing the Bosnian border, the Tara will join the Drina, and in turn the Sava, before eventually flowing into the mighty Danube in Serbia and heading for the Black Sea almost 1,000km away.

Like the very route we’re following, nothing is proving predictable.

We drop down a perilous descent to yet another Montenegrin pearl, Susicko Lake, which in the summer heat lies barren at the bottom of a steep-sided valley.

Nonetheless, the views afforded up the valley from its floor are nothing short of spectacular, and by the time we arrive in Nedajno, a hamlet at the top of the climb back out of the valley, we’ve spent so long admiring the scenery and taking photos that we’re only 30km into a 140km ride, and it’s already lunchtime.

Our stomachs are telling us that it’s too soon for a refuelling stop just yet, but this could be our only chance of finding food for the next 50km, so we agree to stop and find a cafe.

With a collection of traditional wooden farmhouses, small clutches of livestock and acres of grassy meadow spreading out from the road, our bucolic surroundings do look like a thoroughly pleasant place for a break, but there is no obvious sign of a restaurant or anywhere that looks like it might serve food commercially.

We consider raiding the pantry of a local farmer, but eventually we find a sign that we take to be a restaurant, and it’s a relief when we tentatively push open the door and a woman with rolled-up sleeves beckons us in.

I ask for something local, and we’re presented with glasses of some sort of viscous, cherry-coloured liquid.

I can’t establish exactly what it is, but it goes down pleasantly enough, and coupled with an omelette and some crusty homemade bread, provides an ample feast for the remainder of the ride.

The next stretch, from Nedajno to the Bosnian border, is the remotest part of the route, and as we head out of the village it certainly feels as if we’re taking another step out into the heart of the Balkan peninsula.

With the high peaks of the Durmitor National Park to our backs, we waste no time in getting our heads down and forging ahead towards Bosnia across what feels like a high plateau.

There’s little in the way vegetation or landmarks, making it hard to tell how high we are, and the moorland is pockmarked with strange, building-sized craters, which the narrow road traces its way delicately between.

It’s a distinctive, if somewhat eerie, landscape, and as the villages marked on our map continue to pass by with barely as much as a building to identify them, it certainly feels as if we’re approaching the farthest, most isolated point of our adventure.

Soon we find ourselves on the upper slopes of another steep descent, confirming the high-altitude feel of the plateau we’ve just ridden across.

We tear past patches of gravel and through tight hairpins and narrow channels of tarmac barely visible between thickets of undergrowth. Eventually we reach the valley floor, the Tara River and the Bosnian border.

A right turn at the bottom would lead us to a dead end in the Tara Canyon, and so we turn left to begin our long journey back.

Across the torrents of water on the Bosnian side we can see a road that mimics our own, clinging perilously to the slither of land between the river and the steep buttresses of the hills above.

We arrive at an iron bridge, decked with splintered wooden boards, which spans the river, while a peeling sign indicates that we should turn right across the bridge to enter Bosnia or go left for Montenegro.

We turn left again and make our way through a series of road barriers to a customs hut. In a moment of panic it dawns on us that we neglected to bring our passports, not realising that we would be emerging into the checkpoint hinterlands, and we cautiously shuffle towards the gaggle of people surrounding the hut.

Our worry is misguided, though, and after a quick explanation that we have come from Crkvičko Polje (not that quick – it takes me a while to pronounce Tserr-vich-koh-pole-ger, while pointing in the direction of the last village), we’re waved through.

Once through the checkpost, a small service station provides us with the supplies we’ll need to make it back to Žabljak, which – with only 70km ridden so far – is still a long way away.

Moment of clarity

The next section of road, known as the Piva Canyon Highway, dances with the Piva River through the twists and turns of its cradling gorge, from close to the Bosnian border to the town of Pluzine.

Across bridges, through tunnels (56 of them) and along precarious ledges in a 33km rush of pure adrenaline, the road is as impressive a piece of art as it is a feat of engineering.

Far below, the Piva itself rushes through in a charge of turquoise and teal, while high above us the cliffs rise up in a patchwork of exposed rock and rich vegetation.

Huge trees have somehow found enough earth in the cracks of the rocks to take root, and the silhouettes of their canopies can be seen sprouting from the canyon walls, while lesser shrubs jostle for the meagre scraps of space around them.

At times, it feels more like riding through the Amazon jungle than a corner of Eastern Europe.

A dark tunnel appears in the wall, seemingly leading into the very belly of the Durmitor massif itself, and it’s not until we’ve ridden past the entrance that we realise it’s the turning we need.

Riding into the dark hole, a signpost for Žabljak flashes in front of us, and with the light starting to fade it’s a relief to finally see a sign bearing the name of the finish.

But with 50km still to ride, and another 1,300m of climbing over the Durmitor massif still to come, we can’t quite taste the beer yet.

We tack our way upwards through the trees of the lower slopes in a series of hairpins and long straights. After 10km or so the trees recede along with the gradient, and we find ourselves riding a magnificent lonely road through the expansive high summer pastures.

As we inch ever closer to the summit, the sun continues to descend towards the horizon, throwing our shadows out before us and plunging the entirety of the Durmitor National Park into a glowing pool of orange light.

‘I think this is it,’ says Rob.

‘This is what?’ I ask, looking over to him as we round a corner that reveals a particularly incredible view.

‘I think this is the best ride I’ve ever been on,’ he says, without taking his eyes from the mountains ahead of us, as they turn an ever-deeper shade of red.

It’s almost 10pm, and well after dark, by the time we fall through the front door of the hotel, but we find the same incredulous receptionist we met earlier sitting behind the front desk.

I think we have indeed proved without doubt that the Durmitor National Park is one of Europe’s best undiscovered regions, and that the best way to experience it is by bicycle.

‘How was the ride?’ asks the receptionist. I point in the direction of Rob: ‘You should probably ask him.’

 

 

The route

Follow Cyclist’s route around the Durmitor National Park To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/73montenegro. Head northeast out of Žabljak on the road to Nedajno.

After a gradual climb, navigate past the Tara Canyon lookout point and the Sušičko Jezero Lake, before arriving in the village of Nedajno.

From here, head north again on the remote road that winds through the villages of Šarići and Polje, before dropping down to the Tara River and the hinterlands near the Bosnian border.

Slip past customs and take the E762 south, along the banks of Pluzine Jezero, until you reach the Durmitor Park turning (road P14) just before the village of Pluzine.

Follow the P14 all the way through the park, over the peak of Durmitor, and back down into Žabljak.

  

 

The rider’s ride

Genesis Datum 30, £2,499, genesisbikes.co.uk

Genesis’s Datum range is the raciest offering in the brand’s ever-increasing stable of adventure-themed bikes.

The Datum 30 sits as the second in a four-tier range, and while it is presented as a road bike, it boasts a spec that suggests it’s more than capable of mastering some rougher stuff as well.

In Genesis’s words, the Datum is ‘as UK-a-road bike’ as you’ll find. On the lumpy, bumpy and sometimes a bit gravelly roads of the Durmitor National Park, the Datum held true.

Clement Strada 32mm tyres made sure that the bike remained firmly planted, while the carbon frame provided a welcome zest of life on the inclines and the hydraulic Shimano BR-RS805 brakes ensured controlled stopping power in the face of stray cattle and loose bits of road.

Finishing touches include extra bottle cage bosses on the underside of the down tube and widely splayed handlebars that are just crying out for an overnight bikepacking bag to be stuffed between the drops.

It all hints at the longer, multi-day rides that this bike would easily be capable of.

 

By the numbers 

139: Distance in kilometres
4,369: Elevation in metres
1,954: Highest point (Durmitor Pass) in metres
25: Longest climb (Durmitor) in km
1: National borders crossed
9: Humans encountered
56: Tunnels negotiated

How we did it

Travel: We flew into Dubrovnik from London, hired a van for the bikes and drove down the coast to the Bay of Kotor before heading inland towards Žabljak in the Durmitor National Park.

Google Maps suggests the drive should take around three and a half hours, but on narrow, winding roads it took us a lot longer.

Accommodation: We stayed at the Polar Star Hotel (polarstar.me), just outside of Žabljak. The quiet surrounds, ample parking and buffet catering proved ideal.

Expect to pay between €40-50 (£35-45) per person per night. And yes, you can keep your bike in your room.

Thanks: The whole team at Polar Star Hotel were really helpful throughout our stay, offering expert advice, knowledge and history on the whole region.

Two of the staff also doubled up as our guides for the day, driving our photographer around the route, and we couldn’t have done it without them.